When the pandemic first hit, I was surprised to notice an immediate silver lining: I was having a lot more contact with my inner circle. As an American expat then living in Paris, I’d gotten used to conducting many of my friendships long-distance, but suddenly everyone’s friendships had become LDRs, and my calendar filled with rambling catch-up calls and newly invigorated text threads with close friends who had more time to talk. With the few people I saw in person, conversations deepened and connections strengthened, bringing a sense of safety and comfort. A year and a half later, the trend has continued. I talk more frequently with fewer people and have let the weaker relationships fall away rather than working overtime to sustain them. It’s always bittersweet when friendships fade, but in this case it’s been more sweet than bitter.
There’s no doubt that the pandemic has altered our social lives, changing the ways and frequency with which we connect. For many that has manifested as loneliness, isolation, and anxiety; but for some it has offered a rare opportunity to review and reset our existing friendships. Much as COVID has accelerated changes to our work culture, it may have illuminated relationships we’ve outgrown, expediting natural shifts in our social circles.
During stressful times when we have less emotional bandwidth, we’re more inclined to put friendship quality over quantity.
“While we used to maintain friendships by running into friends at school, work, or around town, we now have to be more intentional about connecting,” says Angela Bahns, associate professor of psychology at Wellesley College. “This means it takes a more deliberate effort—we have to schedule a Zoom meeting, or carefully plan a socially distanced coffee date or cocktail hour—and with all the added stress, worry, and family obligations the pandemic has brought, many of us just don’t have the time or energy to maintain all of the friendships we had pre-pandemic.”
For Joyce, 32, of the San Francisco Bay Area, weekends before COVID used to be filled with social events, gatherings, and travel, but she still felt something was missing. “I felt a pervasive sense of emptiness and a lack of true belonging to a community,” she says. “When the pandemic hit, San Francisco became a ghost town, and I experienced a falling-out with ancillary friends, who I realized were more superficial connections and activity partners than friends. At the same time, through the power of technology, I’ve since fostered new friends who share similar journeys in life. Over the last year and a half, I’ve built richer friendships than I have in the three years prior, with new people with whom I can share my deepest truths about burnout, trauma, fears, and challenges.”
During stressful times when we have less emotional bandwidth, experts say, we’re more inclined to put friendship quality over quantity, focusing on the most rewarding bonds, whether it’s because they’re more organic, authentic or supportive. “People prioritize friendships that meet their needs,” says Bahns. “People are brought closer together by the shared experience of COVID-related worries—we want to be able to find comfort in knowing we’re not alone in our loneliness, grief, anxiety, and exhaustion.”
It’s not that we should close ourselves off to new people, but rather that we should periodically take stock of which relationships are most fulfilling and proceed accordingly.
On the flip side, we’re also likelier to be okay with letting certain other friendships fizzle, whereas in normal times, we might have gone the extra mile to stay in touch. “People may be more selective about which friendships they maintain, because they recognize that there are fewer opportunities to meet new friends,” says Bahns. In other words, we’d rather invest in existing strong connections than in new or weaker ones. That’s not to say we should close ourselves off to new people, but rather it’s a reminder to periodically take stock of which relationships are most fulfilling and proceed accordingly. “In a pandemic, friends become less exchangeable, and some research in psychology suggests that this makes people more selective,” she adds.
That was the case for Colleen Gwen, 44, of Brooklyn. “Before 2020, I was that friend you could call any time of day or night,” she says. “Once I had time to sit and think about everyone in my life during the pandemic, I realized I needed friends that were more uplifting. I decided to cut down on interactions with people who only call me to vent about their own problems.”
Setting new boundaries led to a clear improvement in her relationships and mental health. “I’m more aware of red flags in friendships,” she says. “I’m now more transparent about my limits, and I have no need for one-sided relationships. Moving forward, I’ll be more selective about who I let into my life and why. We come into contact with so many people, but we only have a few true-blue friends—the ones you don’t have to think twice about being there whenever you need them.”
For Joyce, bringing more authenticity, consistency, and intention to her social life has made all the difference. “One of the missing pieces I uncovered in my friendships during the pandemic was the lack of authentic connections,” she says. “I took a course on authentic relating and learned the art of listening, reflecting, and sharing impact, which has deepened my relationships.” She’s also found it helpful to employ practices like scheduling standing calls and sharing intentions before catching up with a friend.
The value of these hard-won friendship lessons extends far beyond the turbulent pandemic era. “I think it’s inevitable that we will return to a time with more routine in-person social contacts, and thus we’re likely to grow our social networks and maintain some friendships out of obligation again,” says Bahns. But we can also choose to “prioritize friends who offer social support over purely activity-based friendships.” In that brighter COVID-free future, we can continue to carefully curate our social circles, backburnering less-fulfilling friendships without guilt and reserving our precious energy for those who help refill it.
Originally Appeared on Glamour